Educating nomadic communities in rural India
At the far end of a long desert stretch sparsely covered with stunted trees, thorny shrubs and grass, a group of young children is engrossed in a traditional song and dance game inside a tiny room that resembles a typical primary school classroom.
It is one of the daily activities for the tiny tots at the early childhood development (ECD) centre in a small village in Jaipur District in western India.
The ECD centre, run by ChildFund India`s local partner in the area, caters to around 30 children belonging to a nomadic community, locally known as Bhopa tribe, for whom education has never been a priority. Like other nomadic communities in the region, they have also traditionally resisted the notion of sending children to school.
“It was quite a difficult task earlier to persuade the community to send their children to the ECD centre,” says Raju Devi who has looked after the centre since 1996. “The first two years were really difficult for us. But gradually with continuous effort we managed to convince the women folk of the community that education is important for their children.
“It was mainly because they were not only illiterate and but also their way of life involved repeated shifting of habitat in search of livelihoods. They used to carry their children while migrating to other places. Also, they feared that their kids would be kidnapped if they allow them to go to school,” she adds.
According to Om Prakash, ChildFund India`s local project manager, begging was the only livelihood option for the community when ChildFund started working in the area.
“With the help of ChildFund, we initiated an alternative livelihood program for them to prevent their migration, which was the major stumbling block for their children`s education. Our program intervention helped the community to stop migrating from one place to another and take up alternative livelihood options such as vegetable vending, bangle selling, and scrap collection and selling. It has not only helped the families to stay together in the village, but also receive the benefits of our program. Soon, they started to take advantage of our advice and send their children to our ECD centre,” he says.
Raju Devi adds: “Today, the community is more aware about the importance of early childhood care and the men are also participating in our programs.”
Because of their nomadic lifestyle, these families didn’t know about the child and mother healthcare facilities provided by the government. However, with continuous counselling by project staff, they are now making full use of these public healthcare services, as well as actively participating in ChildFund`s ECD programs.
This has resulted in a drastic reduction in health issues affecting children, pregnant women and new mothers. All of the children in this community are now fully immunised; there is hardly anyone who is malnourished. Mothers follow best childcare and parenting practices, and follow hygienic ways of preparing food, as well as maintain cleanliness to prevent childhood illness. Men also now participate in child care, a major behavioural shift in the community.
Mother of four Supiar Bhopa, 38, says: “Since this [ChildFund] project started in our village, we have been trained on various aspects of child and mother care and now we are following best practices.
“Earlier, our children were facing serious health problems. Many of them were malnourished. They had stunted growth. But now all the children are relatively healthy. All the younger kids are going to the ECD centre, while the elder children are going to school. We are very happy and this is all because of ChildFund!”
This village is just one of 20 gypsy villages with a population of about 25,000 people who are currently being supported by ChildFund India.